How to be lean in a batch production industry

Posted on 28 Sep 2009 by The Manufacturer

Jon Miller of Gemba Research dispels the theory that lean is only for mass production processes...

One of the readers of my blog, Gemba Panta Rei, asked:

“How (can a company) use lean in batch production industry? Most of the time I hear customers saying “lean is for mass production companies and not for us”.”

This is a common question and one worth shining some light on. The simple answer to this is, “By engaging the creativity of people in continuously reducing waste and improving customer satisfaction.” But first it’s important to understand that lean is not all about one piece flow, cellular manufacturing, takt time and cycle time line balancing and kanban systems. These make up the just in time pillar of the Toyota Production System and play a very important role in setting the pace of work, exposing problems and driving down costs associated with inventories and delays. However just in time as a system relies on many other lean practices, all of which can exist and give benefit to batch production industries even when just in time is not being practices.

Here are some suggestions on how to be lean in a batch industry:

Engage people. This is really a basic condition for whatever lean and continuous improvement system you apply within a process industry. If you do nothing else, do this. Without maximum engagement of people and their creative ideas, you can’t call it lean.

5S. Any workplace can benefit from getting rid of unnecessary items (1st S), putting everything needed in its proper place (2nd S) and setting and maintaining a high level of cleanliness.

Visual management is enabled by good 5S as well as the placement of simple visual tools to identify target, actual and a root cause analysis of any gap between those two. It is important to note that “management” is half or more of visual management. It requires the behavior of leadership at all levels to go see the situation on the production floor in order to address the problems that have been surfaced. This method alone can take a batch production industry a long way towards lean.

Practical problem solving. The PDCA cycle of improvement doesn’t care whether you are baking croissants, giving out flu shots after flu shot at a clinic or building custom fire trucks one at a time. The practical problem solving process is the glue that brings various lean tools together, brings people together in teams and engages them in thinking about their work and how to improve it.

Set up and changeover time reduction. Most batch processes are in batch mode rather than small lot or one piece production due to changeover times that are long in comparison with run times for one piece. Whether or not you choose to reduce changeover times and reduce batch sizes (and lower inventories) or whether you use changeover time reduction to increase capacity, single minute exchange of dies (SMED) is a lean tool that will help.

TPM is the classic umbrella system most often seen as the favored “lean for process industries”. Within TPM there are some very specific and practical improvement methods, including all of the above, that are geared towards equipment-intensive industries.

Energy savings. Batch processing industries tend to have long process cycle times, use a lot of heat, water, gas, steam, electricity and other sources of energy. A structured program of auditing and metering energy use, with team-based energy treasure hunts are another way to boost lean activity in a batch production industry.

Error-proofing. Within any of the countermeasures or improvement activities above, there are opportunities to error-proof the process. This can be as simple as manual process in which people set off alarms (andon) when they note a problem, to automatic detection along packaging lines using electro-mechanical sensors, to physical modifications to equipment or tooling so that incorrect installation is impossible.

The production preparation process (“3P”) is a great way to transform batch equipment into equipment that is smaller, has lower capital cost, lower running cost and can accommodate quicker changeovers and smaller batch sizes. Essentially PPP is understanding and applying as many of the above (and more) lean principles at the early stages of product and process design so that you can use kaizen to improve continuously, rather than to correct design flaws.

By Jon Miller of Gemba Research

Curious to learn more about any of these lean practices? Search through the archives of my blog, Gemba Panta Rei. Once you’ve exhausted those options, feel free to ask Gemba. Thanks always for reading.